Reality of socialism rears its ugly head in Cuba

March 2, 2010 07:43

Cuba TV report denies gov’t let hunger striker die


HAVANA, Cuba — Cuba devoted nearly a third of its official newscast Monday night to denying that state doctors purposely let a jailed dissident die from a hunger strike.

It claimed the case, which sparked an international outcry, began because the victim wanted television and other comforts in his prison cell.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo died Feb. 23 after refusing food since December, the first Cuban victim of a hunger strike in 40 years. Imprisoned in 2003 for disrespecting authority, he was sentenced to 25 years for activism behind bars and was considered a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International.

A wide range of figures, from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain, decried the death. They called on Cuba to free all its political prisoners, which human rights groups say number around 200.

On Monday, state-controlled television aired a report that stretched nearly 10 minutes during the half-hour news program, which is broadcast simultaneously on three of Cuba’s five national TV channels.

Doctors who treated Zapata Tamayo, a 42-year-old construction worker, said they tried to get him to eat.

“We explained to him the consequences of his decision at every turn and how much he was endangering his life with this. But he kept it up,” said Maria Ester Hernandez, identified as a doctor for Interior Ministry officials.

There was also footage of his mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, thanking “the best doctors for trying to give Orlando life.” It seemed to have been shot with a hidden camera as she spoke inside a doctor’s office.

The afternoon of her son’s death, Tamayo did interviews with radio stations in Florida shouting that Cuba’s government had let her son die because he dared oppose the Castro government.

The TV report even included an interview with a nutritionist who explained the effects of a hunger strike on the body.

Human rights groups say Zapata Tamayo was refusing food to draw attention to Cuba’s human rights record and its treatment of political prisoners. The newscast contended he refused food because authorities wouldn’t put a TV set, a stove and a phone in his cell.

Zapata Tamayo was jailed in his native Banes — the same eastern town where Fidel Castro married his first wife — but was eventually transferred to Havana. The night before he died, he was taken to a hospital.

President Raul Castro took the unprecedented step last week of expressing public regret about the death. He said Zapata Tamayo was treated by top doctors and denied he was tortured.

State newspapers, meanwhile, have described Zapata Tamayo as a common criminal falsely elevated to martyr status.

Also Monday, Fidel Castro released an opinion column that was read on the same newscast. He made no mention of Zapata Tamayo by name, but defended Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who some have criticized for visiting Cuba as part of a trip that began hours after Zapata Tamayo died.

“Lula has know for many years that our country has never tortured anyone, never ordered the murder of an adversary, never lied to its people,” Castro wrote.

Cuba dismisses dissidents as paid agents of Washington, out to topple the government.

Shortly before the newscast, the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation — which the government does not recognize but largely allows to operate — released a statement saying 115 opposition activists and other Zapata Tamayo supporters were detained following his death and held long enough to miss his funeral in Banes.

Most of those arrested hailed from eastern Cuba and were released after a short time, the commission said.

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